Roger Federer reminds the world of his class at Shanghai

When Roger Federer began the year 2014, many skeptics had already written him off, and the media was abuzz with talks of his retirement, a topic which seems to evoke an unrivaled interest across the globe, transcending sporting boundaries with ease. The former world number one always responded with confidence that he felt his best tennis was just around the corner. While many would have dismissed these words as self-motivating drivel, the maestro proved himself right with an absolutely stunning demolition of current world number one Novak Djokovic in the 2014 Shanghai Open semi-finals last week. He went on to beat Giles Simon in the final to claim his first Shanghai Open and 81st career title overall, but it was against the Serbian that the maestro visibly turned back the clock several years and conjured up the aggression and brilliance we have been bereft of in recent times.
The semi-final, which was the 36th meeting between the two, took their rivalry one better than that of their famous coaches, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, who had met 35 times a couple or so decades back. Djokovic came into the match supremely confident – he was on a 28 match winning streak in China, and the last time he lost in Shanghai, incidentally to Federer, was way back in 2010. The Swiss, on the other hand, had had a nervy competition to say the least, showing flashes of brilliance interlaced with several torturous moments, including the epic battle against less known Argentinean Leonardo Mayer in the second round, where he had to save five match-points.

As the much hyped semi-final kicked off, Federer’s intent appeared clear from the onset – unbridled aggression combined with a high-risk high-return game plan. The logic was perhaps based on the idea that, in the event of a baseline slugfest, the longer the match went on, the greater would be the probability of the younger and fitter Serb dominating. What followed was an old-school display of serve and volley by the Swiss maestro, often reaching and exceeding the high standards set by his coach during his hey-day. The net-play, in my opinion, was a tad overdone, with few of the approach shots looking glaringly amateurish, but Federer’s tennis was, throughout the match, in a single word – brave.

In the 5th game of the match, Federer had the Serb down at 15-40, and broke through after squandering one of the break-points. Though 3-2 up and looking to hold for a two game lead, the Swiss came under heavy fire from the workmanlike Djokovic, who pushed the game to deuce, and sent down a lovely passing shot to set up his first and only break-point of the match. Federer managed to save it, and held on for a 4-2 lead. After the Serb won a difficult service game, the crowd were treated to a rare sight – that of Federer sending down four consecutive aces in a 47 second service game to go up 5-3. He was not as confident while serving for the set, falling behind 15-30 before closing it out with yet another thundering ace.

Continuing his rich vein of form, Federer broke Djokovic in the very first game of the second set, with a dazzling display of tennis which left the world number one floundering like a novice. The early break seemed to bring out the Serb’s ‘A’ game to the table, and the next few games contained some of the most scintillating tennis witnessed in recent times. As much as it was a battle between two great players giving it their all, also on display was the clash of two different tennis styles – Federer’s old-school court craft against Djokovic’s modern power hitting. Down 1-3, the number one seed dug deep to save four break-points against the Swiss, who was playing at his peak of his capabilities, wielding the racquet like a wand. The television commentator hinted that the biggest comebacks in tennis history have happened from a similar situation, when a double-break in a decisive set had been avoided with difficulty. For a while, his words seemed ominous, with Federer going down 0-30 in his very next service game, before sustained aggression saw him close out the game.

The final few games were nerve-wracking, with service games of both players being subject to tremendous pressure. The longest game of the match, close to 20 minutes, came on Federer’s serve, with him leading 4-3. The game witnessed five deuces, with Djokovic getting more frustrated with each missed opportunity, and the Swiss, calm as ever on the outside, getting more daring with each passing shot, and amazingly pulling it off more often than not. Down 3-5, and serving to stay in the match, Djokovic went down 30-40, giving Federer his first match-point. An immaculate serve and volley brought up deuce, but the Swiss once again forced an advantage, bringing up his second match-point. Displaying nerves of steel, Djokovic came up with an excellent serve under pressure, and then held the game to make it 4-5. Federer began the all-important game poorly, falling behind 15-30, but continued going for the winners without any traces of nervousness. An ace set up his third match-point, and a couple of brilliant volleys closed out the match 6-4, 6-4 in 1 hour and 35 minutes.

The score-line and game-duration may look ordinary in the context of the modern game, but this was one of the best tennis matches in my recent memory, particularly the 2nd set, where two of the greatest exponents of the game were playing at their very best. Djokovic acknowledged perfection on display at the other end during his brief court interview:

“I think I did not play too bad. It’s just that he played everything he wanted to play. He played the perfect match. I think he’s going to tell you how he felt, but that’s how I felt he played. He played an amazing match.”

This match, and the subsequent victory over Simon of course,  which elevated him to number two in rankings and within striking distance of the top spot, fuels belief that Swiss maestro may yet have a couple of years of top-notch tennis left in his tank, and the elusive 18th Grand Slam may be around the corner. However, irrespective of whether that happens or it, this performance was a startling reminder to the world that, when at his prime, he can easily dominate and defeat the best in the world. 

Why the 2014 US Open is Federer’s best chance to win a Grand Slam

 by  Marianne Bevis 

Roger Federer has been in sublime touch in the run-up the 2014 US Open final. He wrapped up the Cincinnati Masters, the final ATP event prior to the US Open, without breaking much of a sweat. Prior to that, he breezed into the finals of the Rogers Cup, where he ran into the enigma called Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, who had already eliminated three top-10 players in Novak Djokovic (destroyed him 6-2, 6-2), Andy Murray and alleged ‘Baby Federer’, Grigor Dimitrov. The final was a close affair, but the Frenchman outgunned Federer 7-5, 7-6(3); this minor blemish notwithstanding, there is no arguing the fact that Federer is currently in great form.

One of the biggest factors tipping the scales in Federer’s favour is the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal from the 2014 US Open due to a wrist injury. The man is undoubtedly Federer’s nemesis, having an overall head-to-head advantage of 23-10; the statistic becomes even more powerful when we consider that Nadal has won six out the last six meetings with Federer in Grand Slams.

In fact, the last time Federer beat Nadal in a Grand Slam was in the finals of Wimbledon 2007; such has been the vice-like grip Nadal has had over Federer in recent years, especially in big matches. Though Federer may deny it, in cricketing terms, he is Nadal’s bunny; he just doesn’t seem to find a way past the scrambling, muscular Spaniard. His absence may take the sheen off a victory, if it does happen, but after a two-year wait for a Slam victory, I do not think Federer’s fans, yours truly included, will complain.

The absence of Nadal also ensures that Federer is seeded second at the US Open, as opposed to third if Nadal was playing. Keeping numerological aspects firmly aside, this lays out a much easier path to the final for Federer, where the major players he is likely to encounter are David Ferrer and Grigor Dimitrov, none of whom are likely to ouster Federer in his current form. His likely opponent in the final, Djokovic’s path is strewn with potential giant killers, including Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, John Isner, etc.

If Federer does make it to the final, his opponent is likely to have been on court much longer, having battled through the tougher opponents in that half. Fitness will be a major hurdle in Federer’s path, as was seen during the epic Wimbledon 2014 final, where Djokovic outlasted him in 5 sets. The draw has definitely been kind to Federer, and if things go as expected, we can expect to see a fresher Federer in the final against more worked out Djokovic or his conqueror.

Destiny has presented Federer with a triple opportunity – excellent form, Nadal’s absence and a perfect draw, as he heads into US Open 2014. At 33, Federer, if not on his last legs, is gradually getting there. A loss here, in the most favourable of conditions, on one of his most favourite courts, could be a massive blow from which he may never recover. For his sake, and for the sake of the rare brand of magical tennis he plays, fans around the world would be rooting for him; the next two weeks will tell us whether the maestro will rise up yet again in the twilight of his career, or if this could signal the beginning of the end.

This article was first published on Sportskeeda: